The latest hot and fancy project the capital can boast of is the Delhi Metro, two lines of which are already functional. Most Delhiites have not even seen the Metro, let alone journeyed on it, but well-informed citizens that we are, we know that our Metro is world-class, immaculate, glamorous and much more. We are also an eco-friendly lot and can repeat verbatim how the Metro will decrease the number of buses and private vehicles on Dillis roads, thus reducing pollution.
So far so good. But let's pause to raise some warning flags as well. One example relates to the imminent bulldozing of the Panchkuyian Road furniture market to accommodate the third Metro line. According to the original plan, the Blue Line was to begin at Connaught Place and end at Dwarka. But due to "technical difficulties", the track was extended to commence at Barakhamba Road. Consequently, the underground Metro which was to emerge to the surface at Ramakrishna Mission Marg crossing, would now emerge from the ground just half a kilometer earlier, displacing all of what is (still!) the famous Panchkuian Road furniture market, often cited as Asias single largest furniture market.
According to Arvind Mahajan, Secretary, Panchkuian Road Municipal Market Association, 104 of the market's 205 shops date back to the rehabilitation program introduced in 1949 by the then Minister for Rehabilitation, Mrs. Raj Kumari Armit Kaur, to rehabilitate Pakistani refugees during Partition. The remaining 101 shops belong to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) under the Tehbazaari program.
Mahajan maintains that the present government (he means the central government) is defining rehabilitation to suit its own convenience. "Once upon a time rehabilitation was a noble cause", muses Mahajan. "Today rehabilitation is a 'policy matter'. The alternative proposals offered by the government do not even provide sufficient compensation, leave alone the thought of rehabilitation". Mahajan refuses to comment on rehabilitation offers made by the government. "We do not call them rehabilitation, why should we talk about them. Anyway, we do not need rehabilitation because we will not budge an inch", he asserts with some fury.
During a charged conversation with the representatives of the Association, a number of unusual things come to light, issues that voice the members' helplessness and frustration. First, many alliances arranged by the shopkeepers for their children, which were soon to culminate in marriage, are broken. Astounding as it may sound, the moment the word spread on the impending shift of the furniture market, the would-be in-laws withdrew the marriage alliances, wary of establishing relationships with families whose only source of income (the ancestral shop in one of Delhis most famous markets perhaps one of the very reasons of choosing the family) faces the prospect of demolition, leaving behind financial and professional instability.
The anger and helplessness are evident; the members request me to inform Mr. C.B.K. Rao, the director of planning for Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, to arrange a farewell bash for the affected shopkeepers and their families. A charged Sukesh Kher suggests the DMRC arrange this party in collaboration with the Japanese government, which is anyway funding 64% of the project (in the form of loans). Also, the Japanese be requested to "distribute some poison which works instantly, drinking which, the shopkeepers and their families will perform mass suicide at this farewell dinner. Rao can then use Bhai Vir Singh Marg for a truly suitable purpose constructing a huge cemetery where these shopekeepers can be cremated. Raos name will then go down in history firstly for clearing all hurdles in the way of Delhis third Metro line and also for performing such a unique mass cremation".
"Metro Rail se yahi abhipraya, jo bhi raste mein aaye, kaat diya jaaye" laments a black poster fluttering on Panchkuian Roads divider in Delhis sweltering summer.
Kher, luckily, can later be induced into a less despairing conversation about the Associations dissatisfaction with the governments offer. The shopkeepers are being offered the Bhai Vir Singh Marg area as the alternative site for the construction of their shops in the form of a shopping-complex. This, however, seems to get them in trouble. First, instead of paying the current monthly rent of Rs. 12.50, which was fixed in 1949, they will have to buy the shop space in the future complex. Some of them cannot afford to make such a big investment. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has confessed that the ambitious Shaheed Bhagat Singh Shopping Complex, situated very close to Bhai Vir Singh Place has been a commercial disaster. Most shopkeepers have deserted the former and have occupied small, unauthorized portions outside. This, the Panchkuian Road shopkeepers maintain, is mainly because the area isn't commercially viable. The location is obscure when compared with the present main-road access where passers-by instantly stop their vehicles to pick up tempting chairs, lamps, and other house furnishings.
The members have a suggestion. A portion of the Lady Hardinge Hospital Medical Compound lining the back of Panchkuian Road market is not being used. The members suggest that the market should simply be shifted a few meters further backward, occupying the space lying unused in the hospital. This will create sufficient distance for traffic to flow smoothly between the Metro and the market.
The imminent demolition of the market raises a number of questions. Is the caucus of families of over 205 shop-owners (and with them their army of workers and suppliers) who will be professionally, financially and emotionally affected not strong enough for the 'authorities' to pay attention to? The traders do not question the project itself; but how does one explain the fact that the rail line loops around the buildings of famous, wealthy and powerful people, but forces its way through a market of historical and commercial significance, and is the source of bread, butter and identity for ordinary men and women? And while the donors must respect the authority of the host country, what responsibility for such consequences should be borne by those who finance such projects?
Panchkuyian Road looks bald; the trees lining the street have already been felled. The parched posters in black condemning the Metro, though, are in plain sight; a reminder of the struggle for justice amidst development.